ADDICTION ‘NOT A CRIME’
experts urge new approach in fight against deaths tied to substance abuse
CALGARY — People suffering from addiction and substance use disorders are not criminals, and drug policies will need to change to stem the tide of opioid deaths in Canada.
That was the message voiced repeatedly Tuesday to hundreds of public health workers, addiction experts and policy-makers gathered for a national conference on substance use in Calgary.
For the second day in a row, attendees at the Issues of Substance conference put on by the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction (CCSA) heard experts raise the possibility of decriminalizing drugs as a possible strategy to combat the epidemic of opioid deaths across Canada.
“It’s not a crime to have an addiction, I think that’s clear and our drug policy should reflect that absolutely,” said Dr. Nick Etches, a medical officer of health and the medical director for public health in the Calgary Zone.
Though Etches described himself as an advocate for decriminalization, he stopped short of endorsing the model that’s been implemented in Portugal, citing a lack of data. Portugal has removed the application of criminal law on personal possession for limited amounts of all drugs, while offering more education and social supports — an approach some health advocates and politicians including federal NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh have suggested could help in the response to the opioid crisis.
“I think it’s important that we have a careful, rational, evidence-informed discussion about what a more progressive drug policy would actually look like,” Etches said in a keynote panel Tuesday on the opioid crisis.
University of Toronto toxicologist Dr. David Juurlink told conference attendees that it isn’t useful to look at the current opioid crisis through a moral or criminal lens.
“Maybe we shouldn’t be arresting people for a behaviour that’s primarily a health issue,” Juurlink said. “And if we all agree that arresting people for using drugs is not something that is in anyone’s best interest, maybe we can just change the rules a little bit.”
Speaking to reporters Monday after she addressed the conference, NDP associate health minister Brandy Payne said the government had no position on drug decriminalization but suggested that “when we’re dealing with an opioid crisis and a type of emergency that we’ve never seen before … it’s important to examine all of the different options.”
That remark prompted fury from the Opposition United Conservative Party in the Alberta legislature Tuesday, with Calgary-west MLA Mike Ellis calling it a “grossly irresponsible message.”
“This is outrageous … now is not the time to speculate about making these poisons legal,” he said in question period.
Payne noted there are no plans for decriminalization and the issue is a federal responsibility in any case.
But she reiterated the public health emergency around opioids requires a different response than has been seen in the past.
“Substance abuse is a medical condition that requires a health-care response, unlike the ‘war on drugs’ that has failed,” said Payne.
Tuesday, Etches told conference attendees that the crisis will continue so long as people continue taking illicit opioids such as fentanyl and carfentanil.
In Alberta, from Jan. 1 to Aug. 12, 2017, there were 315 deaths related to the opioids fentanyl and carfentanil, compared with 199 in the same period a year earlier.